What if, despite its surface appearance of messy complexity, life was actually governed by precise machinery? One gets a sense of what this could look like from watching Joachim Koester’s videos and films, installed in multiple rooms at Greene Naftali Gallery. Titled “Body Electric,” the exhibition placed the human body, in all its capriciousness, at the center of a world that operates as if by clockwork, giving rise to unpredictable situations and effects.
The Place of Dead Roads (2013) was projected floor-to-ceiling and corralled by weathered slats in a room-filling installation. The video shows a bizarre staccato dance performed by a group of youthful, dirt-smeared men and women wearing porkpie hats and gun holsters. The scene is like a Western re-created with wind-up toys; the performers’ sharp movements seem determined by the operation of sprockets and gears as much as by muscle and bone. The hirsute male characters have a hipster air that speaks as much to contemporary Brooklyn as it does to 19th-century Carson City. This aspect further connects the piece to its namesake—a 1983 novel by William Burroughs in which characters time travel in and out of the Wild West.
A much more intimate black-and-white 16mm projection in the corner of the room showed a pair of stark white hands performing herky-jerky touch-and-turn motions reminiscent of the gestures that accompany the nursery rhyme “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” Titled Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, the 2011 work depicts a manual miming of the cubic forms included in Sol LeWitt’s 1974 conceptual installation piece by the same name. While devoid of The Place of Dead Roads’s pop-culture references, Koester’s homage to LeWitt likewise captures a series of spasmodic movements, which highlight the distance between LeWitt’s rigidly programmed “machine that makes the art” and the necessarily imperfect motions of the body.
In a separate room, a pair of 16mm films presented two self-reflexive views of cinematic experience. Body Electric (2014) shows the operation of a projector: the spooling of its film loop, the turning of its sprockets and the flickering of its lamp. Of Spirits and Empty Spaces (2012) presents subtitle-like texts that describe bodily motions (“heads are bobbing”) and the actions of an unnamed machine (“fully automatic”)—but no pictures. Together, the films seemed to refer to absent images—the scenes described verbally or the one depicted on the length of film being routed through the projector.
A series of black-and-white photographs in the gallery’s anteroom initially appeared disconnected from the rest of the show. Titled “Boarded up Houses,” this series is not only a statement about dying cities but also a series of variations on a theme in the manner of LeWitt’s open-cube installation. It presents identical views of Victorian-era buildings, alike in structure and built with careful intent but fallen into dereliction. Like the unwashed bodies in The Place of Dead Roads and the awkward hand motions in Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, they suggest that careful design can result in chaos.